What If Troy Davis Was Innocent?

Protest execution Troy Davis

Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia in 2011 despite a strong case for innocence. © Scott Langley

If Troy Davis was innocent, the justice system failed and made murderers of us all. The state of Georgia ended Troy Davis’ life on behalf of its citizens and the federal courts, on behalf of all U.S. citizens, allowed it to happen.

Of course, murder is an unlawful homicide and execution is a lawful homicide.  So, technically speaking, we are not murderers because it is lawful in the United States to execute the innocent.  In Herrera v. Collins, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to rule that it would be unconstitutional for an innocent person to be executed as long as he or she had access to the judicial process.  Legal nonsense aside, Troy Davis’ blood is on all of our hands.

It is no wonder that a million signatures were amassed on petitions calling on Georgia to halt Troy Davis’ execution and that the media was all over the story.  Nobody wanted to have to answer the question, “Was Troy Davis innocent?” after the fact.  You didn’t have to be on the ground, like I was, outside the prison or at any of the number of demonstrations around the world the night of Troy Davis’ execution, to feel the palpable shockwave of disbelief.

carlos de luna

Carlos DeLuna was executed by the state of Texas in 1989. A new study by Columbia University could prove his innocence.

It seemed completely unreasonable to the average person who came to understand how the case against Troy had come unraveled that his execution wouldn’t be stopped.  And those more cynical about the reasonable nature of government could not believe that the state was willing to let its reputation take such a bad hit.

How could our government allow any room for doubt in a death penalty case?  And why do we have any kind of tolerance for the execution of the innocent?

If you’re skeptical that it happens, consider that 140 individuals have been exonerated from death row since 1973, fortunately escaping execution.  Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor said to a group of lawyers in 2001:

“If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.”

We can also ask, “What if Cameron Todd Willingham or Carlos de Luna were innocent?”  Both executed in Texas.  There is compelling analysis of their cases that make it easy to conclude that they were.

Amnesty International got a lot of traction with Troy Davis’ case because innocence is perhaps the most compelling issue connected to the death penalty, and the facts backing up his innocence claim were compelling.  However, we sometimes got the question, “What if Troy Davis is guilty?”  We picked up his case because it was riddled with many problems that we see plaguing the application of the U.S. death penalty.  It was no wonder he had an innocence claim.  In the process of trying to prevent his execution, we were able to help people understand the reality of the broken death penalty.

At the end of the day, we’re in the struggle to end executions because we believe governments should not have the irreversible and terrible power over life.  The issue of innocence has helped us to make this point.  The good news is that we do not need the death penalty to be safe or to hold those who murder accountable.  Justice does not require that the blood of anyone, guilty or innocent, be on our hands.

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5 thoughts on “What If Troy Davis Was Innocent?

  1. Sad news: Ohio killed Donald Palmer today for the murder of Charles Sponhaltz and Steven Vargo. The families of both victims have satisfied their revenge by killing him by lethal injection and claiming that "justice is served in the death of that murderous monster so that we can all get closure", when in fact they unknowingly cause Palmer's family more grief in the loss of their loved one to state-sponsored murder! My heart breaks, and I pray for their comfort and forgiveness for what they've done. At least Palmer made his peace with God before he was killed. May he and the victims R.I.P.

  2. So sorry to hear this news from Ohio. Read, The Myth of Closure—a new book by murder victims families–can be seen on Tennesseans for Alternatives to Death Penalty website.

    Laura, fierce and truthful words! Thinking of you.

  3. Its fine supporting human rights for people who commit murder but what about the victims and there families. Ian Huntley murdered 2 little girls he wants to die and has made several attempts to kill himself but they protect him.The parents want him dead he wants to die why not let him choose death or life in jail.

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  5. I debated the death penalty with myself for decades (I'm 56) and finally concluded that it is wrong.

    Because of the injustice inherent within the legal system, which from personal experience just in civil court, I have concluded is so corrupt and perverted, I dubbed it the Great American Cesspool.

    But mostly, because the death penalty system dishonors the victims of homicide. It dishonors their families, the families of the alleged and convicted perpetrators of homicide, the attorneys and law enforcement officers and everyone else involved. Because of the necessary, long legal process, people are living with unimaginable stress that is like a gun to their heads and this has such a horrendous affect on their spiritual, psychological and physical health, that it robs them of the basic rights to life.

    No matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, the innocent suffer, along with the guilty. No one should have to go through years, even decades of torture. We are torturing people with this endless process and endless debate over the death penalty. It drains our human resources and financial resources for no productive purpose. It is evil.

    The people who are most vulnerable, the victims of these evil murders, are not honored by us in this process. They are unwilling martyrs to the cause. They live on in the spiritual plane and know what evil we commit upon their families, friends, supporters and all the people involved in their deaths. Would they want us to abuse their lives and their loved ones by exploiting their deaths?

    In my family two children have died in accidents. And the most sorrowful effect of their deaths was the inability of their families, whom they loved and who loved them, was that their lives were forgotten and all that was remembered was how they died.

    This is the torture and tragedy that victims and their families experience. It is difficult to remember and appreciate the lives of people who die tragically. But when people are murdered, we put their families through the most unforgivable, painful experience. For that there is no forgiveness.